Bureaucrats like big

The above slogan was coined by the author in March 2005 in a piece entitled Size matters and repeatedly used several times since. It encapsulates one of the most prominent causes of disaster in public affairs, the implacable drive of officialdom towards the creation of ever larger and larger structures and projects. Be it by creation of new entities from scratch or enforced mergers and closures, almost inevitably it produces entities that, despite their growing bloated administrations, are essentially unmanageable. The results range from the virtually unbroken rule that all budget forecasts are grossly exceeded to, in the worst cases, many avoidable deaths.

The remarks below largely concern the UK and the EU, since the statistics available are largely manufactured by the villains of the piece and we often have to rely on personal experience and anecdote. The USA is early on in its flirtation with socialism, though Australia would appear to be deep in this particular mire.

Leading among causes of failure of large public projects are bureaucratic interference and specification changes. Another is the process of competitive tendering, which is a trap, a race in which the prize is awarded to the naively optimistic. People within industrial groups goad each other to advance further along the road to irrational sanguinity in order to defeat their competitors and hence survive.

In this respect, it is always well to remember the traditional cynical list of the stages of a project:

1. Enthusiasm
2. Depression
3. Panic
4. Search for the guilty
5. Punishment of the innocent
6. Rewards for the non-participants

 The UK’s distended Ministry of Defence has long been regarded as the epitome of bureaucratic incompetence. For those involved in dealing with it, the endless twists and turns of policy are bewildering. It is bad enough for industry, but for the unfortunate military personal, who find themselves on the battlefield with hopelessly inadequate equipment, it is a matter of life and death.

Governments, especially when they are newly elected, are suckers for grandiose projects. They desperately need to seen to be doing something. Bureaucrats dust off the files of rejected favourite proposals in the hope of getting them past inexperienced ministers. A recent example is the notorious  UK “omnishambles” budget. The Chancellor had set his course and only needed to call “steady as she goes”, but a full speech is expected, which provided the opportunity for civil servants to resurrect old resentments, resulting in a tsunami of trivial public debate about such matters as taxing Cornish pasties, when the vital matter was the salvation of the national economy.

 Computing chaos

Government computer projects are so notorious that it is hardly necessary to go into detail; yet they never learn. Here is the coda of a relevant section in a book called Sorry, wrong number! I published in the year 2000, in which I have now highlighted one short sentence;

After I had written the above, the great passport scandal occurred. Thousands of would-be travellers were queuing at passport offices around the UK, frustrated because they could not get their passports in time for the holidays and business trips they had booked. The contract, awarded to Siemens for £230 million over 10 years, was to supply a computer  system that would speed up the passport system and increase its security. It did neither. Then students might not get their loans in time for the start of term, because of computer problems. The next one boiling up nicely was the NHS computer network. The contrast between public and private enterprise has no more graphic illustration than in the implementation of information technology.

That one went on for well over a decade until it ended up being known, thirteen years and ten billion pounds later, as the NHS IT fiasco. The Obamacare computer farce is a current lesser manifestation of the same phenomenon.

You might say “It is all very well to criticise, but how else could it be done?” The World Wide Web is the model of how to build a very large computer system. One man designed and demonstrated a software interface, the rest followed automatically.The internet, on which it depends, has a similar history. What is vitally needed, as in nature, is a small but perfect seed; the rest is evolution, not revolution. There are many failures on the way, but these are small and largely unnoticed in the scheme of things, while the risk is widely spread. What the NHS should have done is set up a small interdisciplinary team to design a software interface and a rigorously specified data base. The rest would follow automatically, as would-be participants vie with each other, not by tendering but by investing and competing.

What most people, and especially those who commission large projects, fail to understand is the ease of making hard-to-find errors in computer system design and programming. Such errors range from slips like simple failures of logic or coding, up to complicated interactions between modules of different authorship, especially when there is also interaction with the external human world. When such errors arise from rarely occurring circumstances in real time involving real people, debugging them can become a nightmare. The rate of occurrence of such errors increases with the size of the project (raised to a power of two or greater). The virtually immutable rule is – large, publicly funded, top-down designed computer systems never work. That they still persist with them is to confirm the definition, attributed to Einstein –  Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The smoke screen

A powerful weapon in the hands of bureaucrats is the manufactured statistic. The now classical example is quoting the number of homes a new array of worse-than-useless windmills will power. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie. The simple truth is that most of the time they power no homes at all; yet the establishment media passively keep up the deception. Another recent example is a Government report on the consequences of not building HS2, one of the purest examples grandiose bureaucratic folly. It would, they claim, require years of disruption during the necessary upgrading of existing lines. Such upgrading is long overdue because of the systematic neglect of transport policy by successive governments over many decades. Indeed, one of the most powerful arguments against HS2 is that it is like installing a street paved with gold to link two quagmires. Speeding up part of a journey merely creates a traffic jam at the join. Contrary to these claims, HS2 would only postpone indefinitely the desperately needed upgrades. But HS2 is the product of the fantasy of that ultimate bureaucracy, the EU in Brussels. It is part of the strategy to eliminate nation states, their borders and their cultures. The successive UK governments are, of course, obliged to keep up the pretence that the policy is their own invention. As ever, the grand follies from Brussels spawn lesser, but painful, follies at national level, the Dutch experience of high speed rail being a prime example. Meanwhile, many thousands of people have to endure the daily misery of standing in unreliable, overcrowded trains.

Bigger, better, fewer

The latest fashionable determined putsch is for A&E closures. It follows the established pattern. The critical parameter in the probabilistic survival equation for a medical emergency is the time (and therefore distance) between the onset and reaching treatment. People now feel under constant threat, but to bureaucrats their personal terrors and tragedies are merely part of the “flow of patients”. The bureaucrats say of A&E departments “the fewer, the better”, but to ordinary people this translates to “the fewer, the further away”.

After the New Labour Government had wrecked the local GP services, hospital A&E departments had been left holding the baby. The bureaucratically designed “out of hours” service was not only cumbersome and wasteful; to all intents and purposes it was non-existent. Medics were brought in from outside the area, having no access to case notes or supplies of medicaments, chauffeured around by haphazardly recruited local drivers and, above all, protected by an emergency telephone system designed to maximise discouragement to callers from persisting with their appeals for help. I have experienced it and it was hell. People were haunted by an entirely new fear, of falling ill at weekends. We even created a new word for it. People in distress did the natural thing and went straight to A&E.

This, then, was the cause of the A&E overload, but characteristically the bureaucracy set about treating not the disease but the symptoms. Their solution: close down smaller local A&E departments and replace them with large, remote, inhuman processing units. If, by the way, you want to know what I have done about it, we have transferred all our ill-afforded charitable giving to the local air ambulance: characteristically totally dependent on charity.

The hospital system is the epitome of bureaucratic imperialism. Just as the humble town clerk was transmogrified into the all-powerful chief executive, so the obscure almoner’s clerk evolved into controller of huge hospital empires. People had fought in vain to preserve their much loved local cottage hospitals, but they were not compatible with the bureaucratic ideal and they had to go. The new, large, soulless, distant edifices with their shiny new equipment were the future. Forget the fact that some of them turned out to be systematically torturing patients to death by hunger and dehydration. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, everything is under control.

A policeman’s lot

A saddening example of the phenomenon under discussion is the long decline of British policing. As a child I actually heard an American tourist utter the then cliché “I think your policemen are wonderful.” Nobody says it now. That reputation was earned by village policemen, not just in rural areas but also in urban boroughs.   It outraged the committed bureaucrat to his very soul that individual policeman were out there on the streets, exercising their own judgement, local knowledge and discretion without the benefit of detailed management. As with the NHS, the force is now under continual reorganisation, to the point of total demoralisation. The eventual solution was to remove policemen from the street entirely, to where they could fill in their forms under close supervision, leaving the petty criminals to practise their trade unmolested. The bureaucratisation of policing, including the archetypal management-versus-union structure, has destroyed the reputation of British policemen: as exemplified by Andrew Mitchell affair. The prime motivations for the police now are fashion and publicity. They turn up mob-handed at 6 am accompanied by the massed press corps whenever the arrest of a “celebrity” is in the offing. The new thought-police allow officious bodies to make the law; as in the case of the football fan arrested for defensively using the word “Yid”, a word unilaterally banned by the FA. Are they going to ban the whole Yiddish language and culture in the name of anti-racism?

I must admit that it was an utter shock to me when I personally experienced modern post-Blair British policing. It was pure Kafka, totally alien to the country in which I was born and bred. My friends in the local pub were absolutely right when they laughingly said “The only reason for reporting a crime is to get a crime number for insurance purposes.”  They added that the old much missed local sergeant would have known the obvious suspects and probably retrieved the stolen items. The original telephone conversation was backed up weeks later by a call from the “local” police, though by then the police station had been closed. At no stage was there any indication of intention to investigate. The final act was the offer of counselling. Talk about adding insult to injury.

I attribute no blame to the police themselves: like me, before I gratefully grasped the opportunity for early retirement, they were wasting more and more of their time and effort feeding the bureaucratic monster. The best of them have gone and their successors now know no better. As in all the cases discussed here, there is always a ready supply of quislings who will drop their calling in the pursuit of office; which brings us to –

The regimented groves of academe

I only became fully aware of the scale of the change in university governance when a colleague was accused of “undermining central management”. That was towards the end of last century, but only a decade earlier it would have been entirely without meaning. Our forefathers had wisely created a financing system (the University Grants Committee) that insulated the universities from short term political or bureaucratic interference; one deliberately made slow to react to fashion and fancy by quinqennial funding.

It is an odd fact that, while British Labour governments had been responsible for wrecking the best school system in the world, it was Conservatives who did the same for the universities. Instant control of funding for teaching and research was all that the bureaucrats needed to establish firm control. A new type of academic leader emerged, first as vice-chancellors and then as heads of department. They understood the bureaucrats and spoke their language. The inspirers have given way to the empire builders.

Small research groups were forcibly herded into larger groups, often ill-fitting: bigger was now better. The key requirement for obtaining funding was to take care to insert fashionable political catch-phrases into grant applications – “global warming”, “sustainability” etc. In the new universities much of traditional research was replaced by trendy activities, such as conducting the sort of dubious surveys that used to fill the pages of popular women’s magazines. The media, of course, loved it. Virtually nobody does small physics any more.

Modus operandi

The new political master class have emerged with little knowledge of life, the universe and everything. They are largely educated privately or in elite comprehensives in areas colonised by wealthy socialists (working class kids having been excluded by the demolition of their grammar schools) and emerge with degrees such as Oxford PPE or related pseudo-sciences. They become political researchers or even advisers and transfer rapidly to the political ladder that elevates them to the status of minister, at an age that has never before been considered appropriate as a basis for bestowing trust with political power. Above all they are easily manipulated to fulfil the designs of beavering bureaucrats, without whose aid they can implement nothing.

The real holders of power are these unelected officials and their machinery of power mainly comprises a subsurface bureaucratic network. This is an invisible, continuous communication system linking the overweening Brussels official to the obscure local council officer. The principal evidence of its existence is the remarkable unity of policy in areas such as global warming, high-speed rail networks or what is taught in schools. Unseen, the bureaucratic mycelia penetrate and creep through the musty political undergrowth, thriving on the naïveté of the new political class. Policies suddenly spring up “spontaneously” all over the continent (or even the world) and are rushed into legislation, without ever appearing in party manifestos.

This new establishment are in their heyday. They get their thrills from being in charge of something big, with the concomitant large teams of minions at their command and, naturally, appropriate remuneration for their alleged skills. They reward each other with enormous salaries and outrageous pay-offs, be it in the BBC, NHS Trusts or any other public enterprise that money automatically pours into. Another important principle is: the bigger the enterprise, the less noticeable are the bureaucrats’ rake-offs. They are able to operate their own income-generating scams, such as hospital car parking extortion rackets, a particularly opprobrious development that exploits vulnerable people and adds to their distress.

So they march on, from failure to failure, proudly following the banner bearing the declaration, writ large, that “Bigger is better!”

 John Brignell

 October 2013